Need a warmup this chilly season?
So do a lot of Chicagoans in need of a coat this winter. By donating one, not only do you help a neighbor in need, the act of giving is a good way to warm your soul, said Jackie Rachev, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, which partners with the Chicago Bears and Jewel-Osco for an annual coat drive.
Groups like the Salvation Army often use coat distribution to help connect people in need with more services, while others, like a national nonprofit that was holding its biggest fundraiser of the year Thursday, focus largely on helping local groups make sure people are warm in the winter. At the same time, many local food pantries and charitable groups also take and give away coats.
Picture a sold-out Soldier Field; during its 30-year run, the Bears-Jewel annual drive has collected enough coats to distribute not one but 10 coats per person, Rachev said. With drop-off locations at nearly 200 Chicago-area Jewel locations, that’s just one of the local efforts to get coats to those in need.
Rachev said the Salvation Army also is partnering with WMAQ-Ch. 5 and Telemundo on a coat drive, which kicks off Monday. Donations can be made outside NBC Tower, 455 N. Cityfront Plaza, just east of Michigan Avenue.
“As long as they come in and they’re in good condition — gently used or new — that’s what we need,” Rachev said. “And of course the majority we need are for children; they grow out of them so quickly as seasons change.”
For the Bears-Jewel partnership, Rachev says anyone who needs a coat can go online to the Salvation Army Metropolitan Division or call 773-353-8607 to locate a nearby facility to connect with caseworkers. Those in need should not first visit a Salvation Army Family Store because without a voucher for a coat in hand, they will first be directed to a caseworker.
“Often it’s not just a coat — they need a little extra support. Needing a coat is a symptom of a larger need,” she said. “When you’re already worried about rent or putting food on the table, you may need the additional services we offer.”
Rachev said starting with a case manager can help put Christmas presents under the tree, provide a meal kit to prepare a holiday dinner and even help with utility bills or rent.
Anyone needing a coat gets a voucher and can shop for one they like at any Salvation Army Family Store. Coats will be available starting Monday.
“It helps them maintain their dignity,” Rachev said. “It goes a long way with people to afford them an opportunity to shop and select a coat based on their own personal style. It feels more comfortable for most people than charity does.”
Many other Chicago-area groups do coat drives this time of year, although some already are finished collecting or even giving away coats.
Coat Angels is a Chicago-based nonprofit whose founder Micki LeSueur had the idea one Christmas while shopping for friends and family. She realized her circle wasn’t in need of presents, but many Chicagoans were going without essentials, such as a warm jacket, according to the group’s website. The organization is dedicated to providing schoolchildren in need with a brand new fleece, winter coat, hat and gloves.
Along with local coat drives, national organizations connect people who want to donate with people who need help.
Operation Warm coordinates fundraisers with volunteers across the country and uses donations to have new coats made for recipients, according to a release from the group. In Chicago, they’ve most recently teamed with IGS Energy to provide a new coat for every student, about 300, at Esmond Elementary School at 1865 W. Montvale Ave. The coats are to be distributed Friday during a school assembly.
Thursday is the biggest day of the year for the national organization One Warm Coat. The first $12,000 donated on its website will automatically be matched, said Patti Zappa, the nonprofit’s spokeswoman. To put the $24,000 it hopes to bring in into perspective, Zappa said her group can warm two people for every dollar raised. That’s 48,000 people who wouldn’t otherwise receive a donated coat if the group meets its minimum goal.
“We don’t buy new coats with the money, but our outreach, with every $1 we can warm two people. So if someone makes a $5 donation, they are warming 10 people,” Zappa said.
They accomplish that by pairing local volunteers such as preschool classrooms, Cub Scout packs or businesses — One Warm Coat calls them ambassadors — with other local partners such as churches, nonprofit groups or schools, which then hand out the coats. One Warm Coat doesn’t physically handle the coats.
“We require the nonprofit partners to guarantee that they are in need of coats and that they will give them away for free and without discrimination,” Zappa said.
The organization sends anyone who signs up to run a coat drive a welcome kit with materials to decorate a donation box and a way to track donation goals. On average, each ambassador collects 190 coats that are then dropped off with the nonprofit partner to give away to those who need them, Zappa said.
Sometimes the ambassadors are a company that is using employee engagement to bring in clean, ready-to-wear coats. Other times a business will offer a special to encourage customers to bring in donations — say a restaurant that will give customers 20 percent off their bill if they bring in a coat to donate. Zappa is always impressed by the children who start a drive in their classrooms.
“It’s an excellent way to introduce young children to the joy of philanthropy,” she said.